When the free agent period officially opened on March 10, the New York Giants moved quickly to sign five players. Wide receiver and returner Dwayne Harris of the Dallas Cowboys was one of the five. And surprisingly, Harris’ 5-year, $17.5 million deal was by far the largest in terms of the number of years and overall value. Harris also received the largest amount in guaranteed money ($7.1 million with a $4 million bonus).
On the surface, that appears to be a lot of money for Dallas’ 4th wide receiver/back-up slot receiver and punt/kickoff returner.
The 27-year old Harris was originally drafted in the 6th round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Cowboys. In four seasons with the Cowboys, Harris has played in 52 regular-season games with three starts, catching 33 passes for 418 yards and three touchdowns. Harris finished 2014 with just seven catches for 116 yards and no touchdowns, down from nine catches in 2013 and 17 catches in 2012.
Harris also averaged 9.2 yards per punt return and 24.7 yards per kickoff return in 2014. Those decent but not stellar figures were 9th- and 13th-best in the NFL last year.
So why the big bucks for a guy who has been only a good role player to date?
“Harris is a well-kept secret to a lot of people, except the teams in NFC East,” said General Manager Jerry Reese. “He is one of the top all-around special teams players in league and a solid third or fourth receiving option.”
Harris indeed was far more impressive on special teams in 2013 as he averaged 12.8 yards per punt return and 30.6 yards per kickoff return. Those figures were 3rd- and 2nd-best in the NFL that season, helping him to earn “NFC Special Teams Player of the Week” twice, including once against the Giants.
Harris also won another another “NFC Special Teams Player of the Week” honor in 2012 against the Philadelphia Eagles. That season, Harris averaged 16.1 yards per punt return, 2nd best in the NFL. Harris returned punts for touchdowns in both 2012 and 2013. Bringing him on board strongly suggests that the Giants do not want to risk Odell Beckham on punt returns.
On the downside, he Harris six career fumbles on punts, including four in 2014. Ball security has been an issue for him going back to his college days at East Carolina.
Harris’ contributions on special teams are not limited to the return game. Harris is an excellent coverage man on special teams. Indeed, it was Harris’ coverage work against the Giants on opening day in 2013 that earned him the “Special Teams Player of the Week” award. In that game, Harris made three special teams tackles and forced a fumble that was recovered by Dallas. In 2014, Harris was credited with 18 special teams tackles – a very high number.
“I am a physical player,” Harris said. “I think all of the Giants fans are going to find that out soon. I am a physical player and I like the physical nature of the game. I like being the guy who hits players. I take a lot of hits during the game. It is always fun to return the favor.”
But $17.5 million with $7.1 million in guaranteed money still seems like a lot of money for a special teams player. Could the Giants see Harris as a bigger contributor at wide receiver than his 33 career catches to date indicate?
Assuming everyone stays healthy, the top three receivers on the Giants should be Beckham, Victor Cruz, and Rueben Randle. Since Harris is experienced playing the slot receiver position, the Giants may consider Harris to be an insurance policy if Cruz struggles or re-injures himself. Preston Parker was the reserve slot guy in 2014, finishing with 36 catches for 418 yards and two touchdowns. Parker also returned both punts (6.6 yard average) and kickoffs (24.2 yard average) for the Giants in 2014. The Giants might see Harris as an upgrade over Parker not just as a returner, but as a receiver.
Heading into the offseason, the Cowboys felt they could re-sign wide receiver Cole Beasley or Harris, but not both. Harris provided more special teams value, but Beasley is the primary slot receiver for the Cowboys. Dallas re-signed Beasley with a 4-year, $13.6 million contract that included $7 million in guaranteed money and a $4 million signing bonus. As soon as that deal was done, Harris was sure to sign elsewhere.
Harris has flashed at receiver. While he is not a big (5’10”) or exceptionally fast (4.5 range) target, Harris is a solid 202-pounder with good quickness and run-after-the-catch ability. He is tough and physical and an excellent blocker for the ground game, something repeatedly mentioned by those who followed him in Dallas.
“This was just a perfect fit for me with what (the Giants) do,” said Harris. “They are going to give me a chance to play my old team, the Dallas Cowboys, twice a year.”
Right now, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning ($19,750,000 in base salary and bonuses) and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul ($14,813,000 franchise tag) take up over 24 percent of the team’s $143,411,883 adjusted 2015 salary cap. That’s two players taking up almost a quarter of the franchise’s cap space. Most teams facing such a situation would look to re-structure or extend the contracts of players placing so much pressure on the cap.
However, with the free agent market drying up and the Giants still roughly $9 million dollars under the 2015 salary cap, the team appears to have the option or “luxury” to carry these two huge cap numbers, allowing both Manning and Pierre-Paul to play out the final year of their contracts. Why would the Giants do this?
Both Manning and Pierre-Paul have proven to be inconsistent players. After having a career season in 2011, Manning was on a downward spiral for two years before bouncing back with a strong 2014 season. The 2013 season was particularly alarming as Manning arguably had his worst season as pro. Pierre-Paul also had his best year in 2011 and was also trending downward until bouncing back in 2014. And although Pierre-Paul had his second-best season as a pro last year, he did not make a big impact in games until the Giants’ post-season hopes were already dead.
Before the Giants extend or re-sign Manning and Pierre-Paul, they may want to see how both perform in 2015. The odds are Manning should do well as he will be in the second season of Offensive Coordinator Ben McAdoo’s quarterback-friendly offense. Odell Beckham is arguably the best wideout in the game. Victor Cruz may not be the same player after his October 2014 knee injury but he should be back. And most of the surrounding offensive talent base should be better, including the offensive line, a running back corps that now includes pass-catching back Shane Vereen, and a more mature Larry Donnell and Rueben Randle.
But what if the 34-year old Manning has a bad year in 2015? Signing him now to a contact similar to Ben Roethlisberger’s new 5-year, $99 million deal could sabotage any rebuilding process.
The same set of circumstances applies to Pierre-Paul, who is looking to become one of the highest paid defensive players in football despite only accruing a combined total of 8.5 sacks in 2012 and 2013. If the Giants pay Pierre-Paul a huge, long-term contract and he remains an inconsistent player, the team would be severely limited in what it could do to improve the overall state of the defense.
In short, and to be brutally frank, if the Giants extend Manning and Pierre-Paul with mega-contracts, and both do not perform like impact players, then the team’s future would be bleak. The contracts would prove to be an albatross, making it difficult to not only retain and pursue other talent, but probably even preclude the option of releasing either player in a worst case scenario.
Of course, there is a risk here for the Giants. If Manning and Pierre-Paul play extremely well in 2015, the Giants may be faced with the daunting prospect of their franchise quarterback and one of the league’s best pass rushers hitting the open market next offseason at the same time. The Giants can only use the franchise tag on one player per offseason. If the Giants cannot re-sign Manning before free agency begins, they would have to franchise him (over $23 million). Pierre-Paul would then likely hit the open market. And once a player hits the open market, it is a 50-50 proposition on whether he returns.
Nevertheless, right now, it appears this is a gamble the New York Giants are prepared to take.
“There are no guns to anyone’s head, no ticking clock (with respect to Manning),” said team Chairman and Executive Vice President Steve Tisch on Monday. “I have not heard he has been putting any pressure on us. So I think let’s just wait and see.”
As for Pierre-Paul, Tisch said, “A lot depends on how he performs this season.”
The New York Post is also reporting that team President and CEO John Mara said on Monday that an extension for Manning is “preferable” but the Giants are willing to let him play out his contract.
Of course, this could be all negotiation posturing, a way for the team to encourage Manning and Pierre-Paul to reduce their respective contract demands. Without new contracts, there would be a lot of unpleasant pressure on Manning and Pierre-Paul to play well in 2015 for their own financial welfare. Some players do not respond well to such pressure, as we saw with Hakeem Nicks in 2013 and Antrel Rolle in 2014. Both Manning and Pierre-Paul cannot discount the fact that the team appears to at least have the financial option to force them to play well in 2015 in order to get paid well.
For two players taking up nearly 25 percent of the 53-man roster’s cap space, this is indeed high-stakes poker.